Hardcore for Nerds

"Why sneer at the intellectuals?"*
punk music, left politics, and cultural history - previously found here.
contact: gabbaweeks[at]gmail.com (sorry, no promos/submissions, thanks) or ask
Dublin, Ireland. 27, history, politics & law graduate
HFN | Best New Punk | HFN 2012 2011 2010 2009 | HRO 2k9 | Hoover Genealogy Project | @HC4N
*from the title of a review of Arthur Koestler's Arrival and Departure by Michael Foot, Evening Standard, Nov. 26, 1943.
Apr 05
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I often notice when it’s very still here, there’s a sort of velvety texture to the stillness, and it’s made up of subliminal sounds coming in from great distances | the waves are never absolutely still, there’s waves breaking at different times on all these little coasts… the sound is reaching us here with various delays and attenuations… and producing a sort of generalised hushing sound. And I was thinking this is almost like as if you were listening to the sound of the past… not really of history, which has its definite sort of structures to it, but all the bits of the past that don’t get into history, all the voices that are forgotten, never been heard, never expressed themselves… all telling their own story, and these stories in a way all cancelling each other out, to a sort of voiceless confusion

unnamed speaker, Silence

(at least I didn’t recognise the voice, which was off-camera, and it didn’t sound like any of the other people who did appear in the film - which may sound strange but the director is on record as saying there are little tricks like that to, if not confuse viewers, then make them think about what they’re seeing and hearing)

This - endless, echoing sound - is a really powerful romantic idea: it’s in the opening of Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sound Forever (in the sound of the Big Bang echoing around the universe), it’s in the story of the Listening Monks in Terry Pratchett’s Soul Music (also an excellent broad satire of rock’n’roll) and also obliquely, as I recently rediscovered, in Tolkien’s creation myth for the world of Middle Earth (where the Music of the Ainur becomes the template for the entirety of history). I think, though, that the simultaneous existence and negation of voices in it is an even more powerful addition.

sound Perfecting Sound Forever tolkien silence irish film
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Mar 11
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I remember speaking with Bob Woods, who was one of the founders of a classical music label called Telarc that was one of the first labels, probably the first label, to release digital recordings. These were on vinyl, but it was before CDs. And he was saying, you know, what people - they realized something is that if you take vinyl, and you just cut - you know, just have a blank vinyl disk and cut some grooves in it, and you put a needle on it, you’ll hear, you know, a hissing sound, like (hissing). And everything you hear on vinyl is being heard through that filter of pink noise, and it kind of gives it a warmth. The way he put it is it feathers the edges.

And so there really is something about that analog distortion. It might not actually be accurate, but there’s something about it that we love.

'Perfecting Sound Forever': A History of Audio : NPR

I finished Greg Milner’s book several days ago, and I guess that as brilliant as it was, I was a little disappointed that it didn’t lead to a more powerful concluding statement. Which is silly given that, as the title clearly hints, the development of our ‘recording consciousness’ is an ongoing process.

The NPR interview above covers almost verbatim a lot of the interesting anecdotes and ideas in Perfecting Sound Forever, so I’d say it would be a good read if you’re thinking about buying or reading the book. This section is a slightly more succinct description of the closest the book comes to offering a definitive answer on the analog/vinyl question, that is of most interest in to me. 

If there’s a criticism to be made of the book, I think it’s that Milner’s open-mindedness when it comes to different perspectives on sound quality sometimes veers awkwardly from proper scientific scepticism to credulity: for example, the final chapter features him taking a rigorous, professional-standard test to identify CD quality audio and digital compression codecs (and being surprised at the difficulty) but then later having his voice recorded acoustically onto a wax cylinder and being equally surprised, and convinced, of its especially ‘realistic’ quality.* It’s not that he doesn’t put in the appropriate caveats about the possibility of suggestion, and the inherently subjective character of listening, but I’d rather he came up with a more definitive conclusion. Of course part of the point of the book is to avoid the definitive certainties of various people at various times: to historicize the idea of ‘perfect sound’, one could say. This review for The New Statesman puts it quite well:

"One of the joys of the American music writer Greg Milner’s history of recorded music lies in debunking the rather tedious myth of a halcyon age when records were somehow "authentic". At its heart, Perfecting Sound Forever is an anti-nostalgia tract, a ritual smashing of rose-tinted glasses. Almost since its inception, the recording industry has, given the opportunity, sought not to preserve reality but to improve upon it."

But as a self-confessed analog fan, there’s a touch of the rose-tint in his view of that era too. As a subjective, augmented form of musical reality there is a certain coherence of it with the approach of the book, but it also underlines the transient nature of any such perspective. What will future ‘perfect sound’ sound like? 

*I was in turn surprised by the claim that people hear their voice as being more like how they think it sounds, not as we are usually shocked at first to hear when recorded through more modern technologies; I always thought that effect was because we hear our own voice through the acoustic chambers of our own head and mouth, which no external recording technique (or listener) would replicate?

perfecting sound forever vinyl history
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Mar 05
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Hot Water Music - ‘Call It Trashing’ from A Flight and a Crash (2001)

Something react with a shake and a bang to resurrect a dead beat, rhythm of a slant and a pose of chivalry that’s far from its best, so over-rated, so bits and pieces, accelerated, and so deceiving … Wait, it’s all sounding the same. Rehashed beats and break downs, surround and take the diversity away and make it all feel stale and vacant. Wait, it’s all sounding the same. It’s all charades and shadows. Call it trashing”

My #1 favourite album and my favourite-sounding record. Oddly enough, it sounded impenetrable and ungraspable when I heard it first. I obviously liked something about it enough to stick with it, though, and when I read along to the lyrics it opened up the sound for me. I think it was one of the first albums where I started to hear bass guitar a separate sound within the songs, not just as intro - particularly since it has such a wonderful guttural quality here.

It all just seems to have such a perfect balance: as I hear it, the guitars chime with the high end of the drums and cymbals, the vocals are typically throaty but don’t overwhelm the mix and sit comfortably in the middle, while the bass rumbles alongside everything else. I guess that might have been the cause of my initial difficulty: everything being on the same level, so that it takes a bit of close listening to ‘unlock’ the sound and unfold its structure. The loudness can be a bit fatiguing - less so I think on vinyl, or through headphones with competing sounds? - but conversely if you can immerse yourself within it it becomes very rewarding. 

I can’t proselytise enough about the sound of this album and the quality of music in it, but the strange thing is that I think the follow-up, while having similar songs, sounds terrible. A Flight and a Crash was the first of three albums Hot Water Music released for Epitaph Records, all produced and recorded at Salad Days studios in Baltimore by Brian McTernanCaution has an extremely noticeable thin drum sound, that I’ve seen described as “plastic bucket syndrome”. It’s not completely absent from A Flight and a Crash, but it ruins the later album for me (or at least, although it has some very good songs on it, I rarely want to listen to it specifically). The New What Next has a similar enough drum sound too, but it matches it with quite compressed-sounding guitar so it adds to the experimental feel of that album, which works.

In the other direction, the album immediately preceding A Flight and a Crash is the Walter Schreifels-produced No Division which has a solid if unspectacular hardcore sound, with rolling drums and buzzing distortion, that perfectly suits the musical intent. Before that, the band recorded with Steve Heritage, a relationship which Eric Grubbs in his POST oral history of post-hardcore recounts as ending somewhat tensely with Forever and Counting - a record I always really liked the sound of it, so it surprised me that the band didn’t, although the explanation might be more to do with context:

"I just think it sounds like dogshit," [Jason] Black says. [Chris] Wollard insists the songs sounded great in the studio, but when they got the record, they didn’t like the way it sounded, especially with its limp bass sound. "To us, it sounds fuckin’ horrible, and it’s probably because of the bad taste in our mouth," Wollard says.

I think it definitely has some of the same thinness in the drums as Caution, and I guess consequently a lot of heaviness in the mid-range, but for me that always worked because of how stretched-out the album’s songs feel, particularly in the guitars. But go back to their classic Fuel For The Hate Game, and the balance of A Flight and a Crash re-emerges albeit with a lower sonic fidelity (everything fuzzes, and the bass, instead of a guttural rumble, sounds like it could almost be played on a keyboard - but that’s punk authenticity for ya). For a band that get criticised for sounding the same a lot, I hear a good deal of (admittedly subtle and probably interpretative on my part) variety in their discography.

(Source: Spotify)

hot water music Perfecting Sound Forever 00s post-hardcore 90s
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Mar 04
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The chaos of a Tubby mix - the unexpected dropouts and surges and distortions - is indeed analogous to the political chaos outside those studio doors. But the real metaphor embedded in those dubs is embodied by the image of a man locked inside behind a mixing board as the bullets fly outside, his studio a neutral zone where you made your own laws. You can’t unfire a gun. The act of firing it is like a one-take live-in-the-studio recording. You live or die with what you get, and you can’t remix the past. Late at night at Tubby’s, you could imagine a better world, one where you had complete control - a place where even if the bullet had been fired long ago, you had an eternity to decide its trajectory.

Greg Milner, Perfecting Sound Forever (‘Tubby’s Ghost’)

Another brilliant passage which calls back to this one. My heart sank a little reading it at first, because ‘white American journalist using Jamaican political violence to make philosophical point’ is not usually a good look, but he kinda pulls it off here? This is where I can see the political speechwriter history coming through - maybe if he’d worked for Michael Manley things would have been happier (that’s if you believe in the power of rhetoric to subvert structural politics, which in the post-Obamania age is a tough bet). That’s what I like so much about the book - jumping through history to tell breezy anecdotes can be such a hokey element of these kind of ‘popular’ science/culture books, but he seems to nearly always do it well. Here it’s the story of how Tubby “began the Pro Tooling of the world by turning his tiny studio into a musical instrument”.

The image, however, directly contradicts an even more powerful one from the end of Camus’ 1951 The Rebel, his essay on existentialism, and a humanity torn between warring totalitarianisms:

“Each tells the other he is not God; this is the end of romanticism. At this moment, when each of us must fit an arrow to his bow and enter the lists anew, to reconquer, within history and in spite of it, that which he owns already, the thin yield of his fields, the brief love of this earth, at this moment when at last a man is born, it is time to forsake our age and its adolescent rages. The bow bends; the wood complains. At the moment of supreme tension, there will leap into flight an unswerving arrow, a shaft that is inflexible and free.”

'Complete control' is as the 20th century demonstrated a political impossibility, and dangerous to attempt (the 21st century suggests increasing control by, or of, the individual, depending on one's view of technology; and an accelerating lack of control at the environmental level). But Perfecting Sound Forever is patently not about the ‘end of the romanticism’: it is the continuation of it, such as with the mystique of analogue sound in which Milner indulges fairly heavily, and it is admittedly a rather petit-bourgeois romanticism. We will listen to our sonic experiments encoded onto petroleum and/or transmitted through electricity and plastic, while the world burns and others starve, but we shall be free? Or can we transmute our adolescent rages into art with revolutionary potential, become the arrow of self-determination and not the targeted consumer?

perfecting sound forever politics HFN hitler runoff camus dub
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Maybe our world does sound like a CD, and what an analog fan wants … is a record that sounds like a record. Maybe the analog impulse isn’t so much about absolute truth as it is utopian. The analog fan longs for the day when there was a clear boundary between reality and its representation, because maybe in the sound of their favourite records they hear a better world.

Greg Milner, Perfecting Sound Forever

The odd thing about this is that I’m young enough to have grown up with CDs (and then MP3s, which adds a third dimension to the debate). I forgot to mention it yesterday, but one of my early favourite albums was the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Californication, aka a horribly over-loud record. I think at the time the loudness just thrilled me - like Nevermind's thick guitars or punchy drums, it signified 'rock music' at a time when I was just discovering the genre. A few years ago I read about the Loudness Wars, and understood the explanations and the diagrams fairly well, but I'm not sure I sought out its effect on my listening.

However, the explanation in the following chapter here goes one better in describing loudness (a ‘subjective’ measurement) as a perception of sound intensity (the objective measurement, which I knew). The over-compressed, ‘make-everything-loud’ process works by making everything in the music hit its maximum intensity as often as possible. Putting Californication into my stereo CD player I realise just how ridiculous it sounds now to me with that bit of extra understanding - where the music appears to slow down, and what would normally be a quieter part, sounds just as intense as the rest. Of course this isn’t an inherent problem with digital perfection, but rather a deliberate human imperfection created in pursuit of aesthetic qualities which did attract me as a teenager (or at least, I was presented with them, and I liked them).

If I’m correct in my theory, what I like about vinyl now is its imperfections, whether it be its veil of surface noise, its inherited ‘musical’ qualities of limited frequency responses, or its overall narrower dynamic range - the last being akin to that of ‘bad’ CDs except whatever compression exists is merely to get the sound down onto the vinyl, not to force an artificial loudness; ‘good’ CDs, or rather CDs of good masters, might reflect a wider range but maybe lack vinyl’s imperfect simplicity. And MP3s trade difficult-to-discern quality for convenience; I suppose that by abandoning CDs for MP3s and vinyl, using decent but not great audio equipment, I’m technically getting the worst of both worlds, but I don’t yet see the value in perfection - certainly not if I can’t hear its presence, yet enjoy its absence. 

vinyl Perfecting Sound Forever
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Mar 03
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"The riverbed, the hose, the Echoplex, the crazy levels and grimy heads, the weeks spent in sweaty denim - they all added to the recording something that was sonically crucial, but also stubbornly resistant to mastering it for vinyl. Every time a mastering engineer tried to make a lacquer disc of the music, the needle, as if in protest, would literally leap out of the groove. Finally, two mastering engineers, Bob Ludwig and Dennis King, discovered that if the levels were set extremely low they could just manage to get the thing on disc. The result was Nebraska, an album nearly too lo-fi for vinyl.”
Greg Milner, Perfecting Sound Forever

Another Columbia record, although this time it’s an original mass-produced pressing - on thin, light vinyl - I bought second-hand, rather than the heavyweight 2008 repressing of Grace. You can see the quality of the writing and the use Milner makes out of a familiar story, which segues into a  wonderful description of the material production of Springsteen’s next album Born in the USA as the first CD to be made in America, and onwards into the analog v. digital divide. 
I’m not a huge Springsteen fan, in fact I’m quite a small one: this is the only record I’ve bought, while I listen to Born To Run occasionally. But Nebraska is superb (especially if you can hear the Suicide influences). 

"The riverbed, the hose, the Echoplex, the crazy levels and grimy heads, the weeks spent in sweaty denim - they all added to the recording something that was sonically crucial, but also stubbornly resistant to mastering it for vinyl. Every time a mastering engineer tried to make a lacquer disc of the music, the needle, as if in protest, would literally leap out of the groove. Finally, two mastering engineers, Bob Ludwig and Dennis King, discovered that if the levels were set extremely low they could just manage to get the thing on disc. The result was Nebraska, an album nearly too lo-fi for vinyl.”

Greg Milner, Perfecting Sound Forever

Another Columbia record, although this time it’s an original mass-produced pressing - on thin, light vinyl - I bought second-hand, rather than the heavyweight 2008 repressing of Grace. You can see the quality of the writing and the use Milner makes out of a familiar story, which segues into a  wonderful description of the material production of Springsteen’s next album Born in the USA as the first CD to be made in America, and onwards into the analog v. digital divide. 

I’m not a huge Springsteen fan, in fact I’m quite a small one: this is the only record I’ve bought, while I listen to Born To Run occasionally. But Nebraska is superb (especially if you can hear the Suicide influences). 

springsteen vinyl 80s Perfecting Sound Forever
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Vinyl Sunday: Pure Rockism Edition
The figure in the photograph on the left is Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys playing the Temple Bar Music Centre - now the Button Factory - in Dublin in September 2006. Apparently they have a reputation for terrible misogynist rockist music now (when they make music that’s, y’know, popular) but I was transfixed when I first heard Thickfreakness, and their covers of Junior Kimbrough’s ‘psychedelic blues’ on the Chulahoma EP are still fantastic. I haven’t listened to any of their new stuff for a few years now, though - once they made the sonic progression from raw, punk-ish blues to 70s-style blues-rock I lost interest. The one time I saw them live (well before they started playing shows in the O2) was one of the first live gigs I’d been to, outside of school battle-of-the-bands. It was the same show as in the photograph, taken by one of the owners of the Road Records shop in Dublin, and which I bought there when they were closing down a few years ago. Last week I discovered at the back of a shelf an unfinished loyalty stamp card from Road, which I’m currently using as a bookmark for Perfecting Sound Forever.
The record on the turntable is Jeff Buckley’s Grace, “produced, engineered and mixed by Andy Wallace” and released on Columbia Records. Both of the latter two get a lot of mentions in Milner’s book: the first as the source of “pure ambience”, high-fidelity recordings in the 50s and 60s; the second as one of three producers/engineers (the others being Tony Bongiovi and Steve Albini) he uses to guide the reader through the chapter on ‘Presence’ in audio of the 70s, 80s and 90s. There’s a certain cross-over with Retromania, although mostly in the ‘every generation looks to the past’ sense:

"It makes sense that Wallace’s less reverb-happy approach would captivate Gen Xers. Many of their earliest childhood musical memories were probably of dry-sounding seventies records, and the sound was a comfortable alternative to the overblown sound of the eighties, when Gen Xers were growing up and life was getting complicated."

As a Gen Y-er or a Millenial, or whatever, I didn’t really absorb or engage with music at all until my teenage years, so the term ‘child of the 90s’ doesn’t have a lot of resonance for me in that respect. Secondary (i.e. high, between about 12-18 years of age) school for me was 2000-06, and it was in those years that I discovered music part-rooted in the preceding decade and part-rooted in the present. I heard of Green Day by reputation, and 2000’s Warning was the first album I bought (on CD). Followed I think by the Offspring’s 1992 Ignition. I don’t think I was particularly aware of that being much of a time gap (in perspective, it’s like buying a 2006 record today!) since the whole Californian punk movement, that broke into the mainstream in the 90s, was at that time my main entry point into music. The other thing I do recall and that still seems odd today, however, was the immediacy and ‘presence’ (in a sonic and social sense) of another of Wallace’s productions - Nirvana’s Nevermind. Even in the early 00s, in the Dublin suburbs, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and yellow-on-black Nirvana hoodies were still the shorthand for teenage rebellion. 
I don’t listen to Nirvana or Nevermind much any more - not quite in the “I don’t need to listen to it because I can play it any time in my head” sense, as I don’t have a great aural memory, but similar enough. While it’s still great music, it exists mostly as a memory of ‘great music’ before I really knew what or why that was. Of course, I’m still grappling with that, and I just started with understanding the ‘how’ part. I remember it came as a shock to me to discover that Nevermind's guitar sounds were multi-layered: it had never occurred to me that the defining essence of rock's potency was a studio production. On the other hand, when I first experienced live music it took me a while to adjust to and actually enjoy it: having been used to the sound of mostly 90s albums reproduced cleanly on CD players, with neither the over- or under-production of the 80s to challenge my expectations, it was disorienting not to have a vocal or guitar line to clearly pick out in the mass of live distortion. (Conversely, when I bought some decent filter earplugs to protect my hearing a while ago, I was disappointed to hear live bands sound like a CD track; I dropped them while dancing around at a Dan Deacon gig and haven’t replaced them yet.)
An important if obvious question Milner points to in respect of ‘hi-fi’ is fidelity to what? With Edison, he argues it was a Platonic ideal of music to be recorded acoustically, without any electrical mediation. Common sense and technology prevailed to an extent, but still an idea persisted that what ought to be recorded was the music itself, free from its acoustic surroundings. The antithesis of this was the notion of ‘presence’, which also served later as an escape from the excesses of technological production. The 90s, in general, were a sort of middle ground that isn’t wholly satisfying. Listening to my CD of Nevermind this morning, I wondered did the drums have to sound like that? Yet I’m a little mystified by the attitude of Albini at least as presented in the book - what use is replicating the studio experience as-is, when I’ve never heard a band play live in a studio, but instead only in a noise-saturated, busy pub venue? As I write that I can see the solipsism in it: one can presume that the artists themselves would prefer you to hear it as they intended, in the studio (although, at least in punk, a major challenge is usually considered to be ‘capturing’ the live sound/energy). I suppose, ultimately, the only thing to be faithful to is the artists’ vision, however well that matches the tastes of the time (maybe I should wait until I reach the end of the book to see if it offers a different answer, but given the title especially, I’d be surprised if it did.)
***
The other thing the book and its accessible-to-the-layman discussion of sound recording and production is making me think about is the experience of listening to vinyl. Generally I’ve tried to be agnostic about the ‘does it sound better’ issue, mostly because I’ve been literally clueless about sound quality and the more technical aspects of music. Originally I started because the only way to own certain punk records was on vinyl, and because the physical objects and their artwork were appealing. Add to the latter the kinaesthetic experience of actually playing records, and the social aspect of being able to financially support artists other than by buying digitally redundant CDs. I’ve never been able to honestly rank the ‘sound’ experience itself above a placebo, augmented by the other tactile and visual sense-pleasures. Also my speaker system is the same as I use for playing through my netbook, Altec Lansing computer speakers that are powerful and well-defined enough for my untrained ear, while my turntable is a basic USB model that also includes a pre-amp - meaning that any sonic comparisons are hampered by having to switch volume levels every time I change between digital and analogue input.
I feel like I’ve gradually been getting a better handle on sound of late, however, in part I think from broadening my taste in music (and thus, by extension, my record collection). In the end, I never got round to buying too many shouty modern screamo bands on vinyl; it was much easier to pick up the latest indie album here in Dublin. One criticism of the recent explosion in vinyl sales, from an audio perspective, that has stuck with me is the one that points out the contradiction inherent in people eagerly seeking the analogue reproduction of digitally recorded and produced music. Vinyl may be better, this idea seems to argue, for old music (or bands so retro that they record entirely through analogue), but these days digital should lead to digital. And for a certain idea of fidelity, that probably makes sense.
However, I think I’m beginning to realise that for production in its wider aspect, the argument and the criticism is a little more complex. For me, it’s not about vinyl being ‘better’ (so far - I don’t know enough to make or evaluate such a claim, certainly not in a technical sense) but being aware of its difference. Which makes it odd that the quintessentially digital album of last year, Grimes’ Visions, is also one I really enjoy on record: it just jumps out at me. Or rather, it sounds like it inhabits its own space, and sucks you in. Why (or if) that is any different from the digital version (which I also enjoy, although seemingly in a different way), I don’t know exactly, but I’m developing a theory. Grace was an experiment to see if I could distinguish any particular quality about the LP, which was kinda irresistible to buy considering how beautiful the album sounds anyway (I remember first hearing it on my portable CD player on a bus, right after purchasing it: very 00s/90s).
By the time I got to the second side, I still had the vague feeling that the vinyl was a more pleasant listening experience; closer comparison with a digital version resulted in a conviction that the notes on ‘Hallejulah’ sounded more extended and more detailed, but the vinyl still seemed to sound better, somehow. But switching back between them I noticed an urge to further adjust the volume on the digital track - louder or quieter than what had seemed an equivalent volume to the vinyl, as the music itself shifted in volume. I’ve read about vinyl having a smaller dynamic range (between quieter and louder sounds) which gives at least part of its distinctive ‘feel’; digital, being more versatile, has a more expansive sound in technical terms but for that same reason can feel overbearing and over-detailed. I think that could explain why I prefer one experience over the other - and it says something interesting about how I value fidelity. 
Could it be that the physical vibrations of a needle in a groove transmit a range of sounds which, while inferior in (actual, audible) quality than what can be transmitted digitally, result in a more aesthetically pleasing experience for the listener? Likewise, the more subtle criticism of some modern vinyl releases is not that they are plainly digital, but the mastering process used is not sufficiently sensitive to the changed medium to make the end product worthwhile as an experience in itself. I keep thinking of the metaphor of a painting and a photograph - the latter is undeniably more accurate and realistic (at least in a physical sense), often powerfully so, but the former retains an affective and artistic potential despite its physical limitations. Although I suspect the analogy is faulty, since a vinyl record is probably closer in technological terms to a film photograph: and thus we enter into another artistic debate. Fidelity, whether to artistic vision or to audience expectations, is an endlessly malleable concept.

Vinyl Sunday: Pure Rockism Edition

The figure in the photograph on the left is Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys playing the Temple Bar Music Centre - now the Button Factory - in Dublin in September 2006. Apparently they have a reputation for terrible misogynist rockist music now (when they make music that’s, y’know, popular) but I was transfixed when I first heard Thickfreakness, and their covers of Junior Kimbrough’s ‘psychedelic blues’ on the Chulahoma EP are still fantastic. I haven’t listened to any of their new stuff for a few years now, though - once they made the sonic progression from raw, punk-ish blues to 70s-style blues-rock I lost interest. The one time I saw them live (well before they started playing shows in the O2) was one of the first live gigs I’d been to, outside of school battle-of-the-bands. It was the same show as in the photograph, taken by one of the owners of the Road Records shop in Dublin, and which I bought there when they were closing down a few years ago. Last week I discovered at the back of a shelf an unfinished loyalty stamp card from Road, which I’m currently using as a bookmark for Perfecting Sound Forever.

The record on the turntable is Jeff Buckley’s Grace, “produced, engineered and mixed by Andy Wallace” and released on Columbia Records. Both of the latter two get a lot of mentions in Milner’s book: the first as the source of “pure ambience”, high-fidelity recordings in the 50s and 60s; the second as one of three producers/engineers (the others being Tony Bongiovi and Steve Albini) he uses to guide the reader through the chapter on ‘Presence’ in audio of the 70s, 80s and 90s. There’s a certain cross-over with Retromania, although mostly in the ‘every generation looks to the past’ sense:

"It makes sense that Wallace’s less reverb-happy approach would captivate Gen Xers. Many of their earliest childhood musical memories were probably of dry-sounding seventies records, and the sound was a comfortable alternative to the overblown sound of the eighties, when Gen Xers were growing up and life was getting complicated."

As a Gen Y-er or a Millenial, or whatever, I didn’t really absorb or engage with music at all until my teenage years, so the term ‘child of the 90s’ doesn’t have a lot of resonance for me in that respect. Secondary (i.e. high, between about 12-18 years of age) school for me was 2000-06, and it was in those years that I discovered music part-rooted in the preceding decade and part-rooted in the present. I heard of Green Day by reputation, and 2000’s Warning was the first album I bought (on CD). Followed I think by the Offspring’s 1992 Ignition. I don’t think I was particularly aware of that being much of a time gap (in perspective, it’s like buying a 2006 record today!) since the whole Californian punk movement, that broke into the mainstream in the 90s, was at that time my main entry point into music. The other thing I do recall and that still seems odd today, however, was the immediacy and ‘presence’ (in a sonic and social sense) of another of Wallace’s productions - Nirvana’s Nevermind. Even in the early 00s, in the Dublin suburbs, ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and yellow-on-black Nirvana hoodies were still the shorthand for teenage rebellion. 

I don’t listen to Nirvana or Nevermind much any more - not quite in the “I don’t need to listen to it because I can play it any time in my head” sense, as I don’t have a great aural memory, but similar enough. While it’s still great music, it exists mostly as a memory of ‘great music’ before I really knew what or why that was. Of course, I’m still grappling with that, and I just started with understanding the ‘how’ part. I remember it came as a shock to me to discover that Nevermind's guitar sounds were multi-layered: it had never occurred to me that the defining essence of rock's potency was a studio production. On the other hand, when I first experienced live music it took me a while to adjust to and actually enjoy it: having been used to the sound of mostly 90s albums reproduced cleanly on CD players, with neither the over- or under-production of the 80s to challenge my expectations, it was disorienting not to have a vocal or guitar line to clearly pick out in the mass of live distortion. (Conversely, when I bought some decent filter earplugs to protect my hearing a while ago, I was disappointed to hear live bands sound like a CD track; I dropped them while dancing around at a Dan Deacon gig and haven’t replaced them yet.)

An important if obvious question Milner points to in respect of ‘hi-fi’ is fidelity to what? With Edison, he argues it was a Platonic ideal of music to be recorded acoustically, without any electrical mediation. Common sense and technology prevailed to an extent, but still an idea persisted that what ought to be recorded was the music itself, free from its acoustic surroundings. The antithesis of this was the notion of ‘presence’, which also served later as an escape from the excesses of technological production. The 90s, in general, were a sort of middle ground that isn’t wholly satisfying. Listening to my CD of Nevermind this morning, I wondered did the drums have to sound like that? Yet I’m a little mystified by the attitude of Albini at least as presented in the book - what use is replicating the studio experience as-is, when I’ve never heard a band play live in a studio, but instead only in a noise-saturated, busy pub venue? As I write that I can see the solipsism in it: one can presume that the artists themselves would prefer you to hear it as they intended, in the studio (although, at least in punk, a major challenge is usually considered to be ‘capturing’ the live sound/energy). I suppose, ultimately, the only thing to be faithful to is the artists’ vision, however well that matches the tastes of the time (maybe I should wait until I reach the end of the book to see if it offers a different answer, but given the title especially, I’d be surprised if it did.)

***

The other thing the book and its accessible-to-the-layman discussion of sound recording and production is making me think about is the experience of listening to vinyl. Generally I’ve tried to be agnostic about the ‘does it sound better’ issue, mostly because I’ve been literally clueless about sound quality and the more technical aspects of music. Originally I started because the only way to own certain punk records was on vinyl, and because the physical objects and their artwork were appealing. Add to the latter the kinaesthetic experience of actually playing records, and the social aspect of being able to financially support artists other than by buying digitally redundant CDs. I’ve never been able to honestly rank the ‘sound’ experience itself above a placebo, augmented by the other tactile and visual sense-pleasures. Also my speaker system is the same as I use for playing through my netbook, Altec Lansing computer speakers that are powerful and well-defined enough for my untrained ear, while my turntable is a basic USB model that also includes a pre-amp - meaning that any sonic comparisons are hampered by having to switch volume levels every time I change between digital and analogue input.

I feel like I’ve gradually been getting a better handle on sound of late, however, in part I think from broadening my taste in music (and thus, by extension, my record collection). In the end, I never got round to buying too many shouty modern screamo bands on vinyl; it was much easier to pick up the latest indie album here in Dublin. One criticism of the recent explosion in vinyl sales, from an audio perspective, that has stuck with me is the one that points out the contradiction inherent in people eagerly seeking the analogue reproduction of digitally recorded and produced music. Vinyl may be better, this idea seems to argue, for old music (or bands so retro that they record entirely through analogue), but these days digital should lead to digital. And for a certain idea of fidelity, that probably makes sense.

However, I think I’m beginning to realise that for production in its wider aspect, the argument and the criticism is a little more complex. For me, it’s not about vinyl being ‘better’ (so far - I don’t know enough to make or evaluate such a claim, certainly not in a technical sense) but being aware of its difference. Which makes it odd that the quintessentially digital album of last year, Grimes’ Visions, is also one I really enjoy on record: it just jumps out at me. Or rather, it sounds like it inhabits its own space, and sucks you in. Why (or if) that is any different from the digital version (which I also enjoy, although seemingly in a different way), I don’t know exactly, but I’m developing a theory. Grace was an experiment to see if I could distinguish any particular quality about the LP, which was kinda irresistible to buy considering how beautiful the album sounds anyway (I remember first hearing it on my portable CD player on a bus, right after purchasing it: very 00s/90s).

By the time I got to the second side, I still had the vague feeling that the vinyl was a more pleasant listening experience; closer comparison with a digital version resulted in a conviction that the notes on ‘Hallejulah’ sounded more extended and more detailed, but the vinyl still seemed to sound better, somehow. But switching back between them I noticed an urge to further adjust the volume on the digital track - louder or quieter than what had seemed an equivalent volume to the vinyl, as the music itself shifted in volume. I’ve read about vinyl having a smaller dynamic range (between quieter and louder sounds) which gives at least part of its distinctive ‘feel’; digital, being more versatile, has a more expansive sound in technical terms but for that same reason can feel overbearing and over-detailed. I think that could explain why I prefer one experience over the other - and it says something interesting about how I value fidelity. 

Could it be that the physical vibrations of a needle in a groove transmit a range of sounds which, while inferior in (actual, audible) quality than what can be transmitted digitally, result in a more aesthetically pleasing experience for the listener? Likewise, the more subtle criticism of some modern vinyl releases is not that they are plainly digital, but the mastering process used is not sufficiently sensitive to the changed medium to make the end product worthwhile as an experience in itself. I keep thinking of the metaphor of a painting and a photograph - the latter is undeniably more accurate and realistic (at least in a physical sense), often powerfully so, but the former retains an affective and artistic potential despite its physical limitations. Although I suspect the analogy is faulty, since a vinyl record is probably closer in technological terms to a film photograph: and thus we enter into another artistic debate. Fidelity, whether to artistic vision or to audience expectations, is an endlessly malleable concept.

vinyl Jeff Buckley nirvana 90s Perfecting Sound Forever
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Mar 01
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THE EVOLUTION OF KIND HEART: recorded by a Delta bluesman in the 1930s, stolen by white boys in the 70s, now blown up and destroyed by me another 40 years later; the gender of narrator and subject effectively confused, and the strings that once changed from acoustic to electric now just mostly bypassed altogether, becoming the sound of the pickups feeding back on themselves.

KIND HEART | SDH digital

I will never tire of trying to get people to listen to this song, EMA’s 16-minute version of Robert Johnson’s ‘Kind Hearted Woman’. Originally, it was part of a (apparently now abandoned) post-Gowns solo project called Some Dark Holler, a digital album of ‘modern folk’ - you can hear a couple of the other songs here, wonderfully immersive droning soundscapes around sparse guitar pluckings that hint at the richness and depth of her later work - and then became the digital b-side to ‘The Grey Ship’ from Past Life Martyred Saints

Right now I’m reading the chapter of Perfecting Sound Forever about Lead Belly and the Lomaxes, which as expected deftly weaves together the story of the recording technology and the racial politics of that recording. Really, this isn’t just a gripping read about music-making, it’s a bona fide work of cultural history - and an exceptionally well-written one at that:

"Alan [Lomax] felt that Lead Belly never sang more beautifully than that fateful summer of 1933, and he always lamented that he and his father hadn’t had equipment that could do the music justice. But now that he did have the equipment to record Lead Belly well, the problem was how to mitigate the negative effects of the world that equipment represented - and get the real music recorded forever.

[…] Alan also introduced Lead Belly to the people who would form the core of his audience for the rest of his life: mostly white liberals, progressives, leftists, and radicals. For them, Lead Belly was a symbol of noble resistance, with John inevitably cast as the villain. The novelist Richard Wright described the Lead Belly story in The Daily Worker as “one of the most amazing cultural swindles in American history.”

As well as echoing the Sex Pistols’ ‘Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle’, the last part crosses with my own readings in cultural and political history - The Daily Worker, although it’s not hard to guess, was the newspaper of the American Communist Party. The whole section points at - but doesn’t labour - the tension between the Lomaxes’ ‘progressive’ stances and the progress of Lead Belly himself as a musician, and how the very nature of recording shaped that tension. You don’t need to read too much between the lines to see that it reflects cultural issues that are still very real today, and occupy the reflexive concerns of radical politics - no doubt there are fuller studies of the Lomaxes elsewhere (indeed, slightly different aspects of the same story feature recently in this excellent piece about Rap Genius) but here Milner encapsulates the idea into his greater narrative.

EMA Perfecting Sound Forever lead belly folk
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Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra, ‘Danse Macabre’ (timpani part) by Saint-Saëns, recorded 1925 and 1936

The second chapter of Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sound Forever discusses the shift from acoustic to electrical recording in the 1920s. The sound above represents part of the ”first commercially available electrically recorded symphonic disc”, i.e. of a symphony orchestra, ever in the world. What’s odd about it and why the part is included as a sample on this page, is that it retains a characteristic of acoustic recordings in having no percussion instruments - instead, in the 1925 recording the timpani is replaced by either a contrabassoon or bass sax, while the following 1936 clip includes actual percussion. This was done because acoustic recording could not handle it, and they had not yet learned how to adapt the electrical recording process to its use, as explained at the above source: 

The high amplitude and rapid onset of percussion notes, particularly of lower frequencies, had caused recording difficulties in the mechanical acoustic process. The acoustic system simply could not tolerate most of the orchestra’s percussion, because the cutting stylus, driven by the uncontrolled acoustic energy, could leave the surface of the wax master, ruining the recording.  It was for this reason that, in the acoustic process, timpani were replaced by bassoons and bass drums were replaced by tubas and contra-bassoons. The electrical and mechanical control of the cutting stylus of the electrical system were now able to cope with percussion, including bass drums and timpani.”

Essentially this first electrical recording features a synthesised beat - albeit made from one instrument impersonating or replacing another, not a ‘new’ instrument. The page suggests the effect sounds amusing to modern ears, and it certainly sounds odd - I don’t know much about classical music, but the percussion definitely sounds like it should be there and not the bass woodwind - yet popular music is now full of such changes, most created electronically. And of course orchestral music frequently features instruments being used to sound like other things, although not necessarily each other: this pre-existing practice of acoustic recordings was an attempt to reshape the music to fit within physical limitations, and thus better reproduce its original intended range.

In Perfecting Sound Forever, Milner portrays acoustic v. electrical as the ‘vinyl v. digital’ of its day. The physical limitations of acoustic recording were material flaws which were nevertheless held to represent a more ‘natural’ reproduction of sound, whereas electrical recording strove for an artificial clarity that encouraged experimentation and - most importantly - manipulation. The phrase “music as ideology” crops a few times, and the distinction between forms of recording is described as a ‘dialectic’, but there’s a strong philosophical narrative being told about how sound reproduction was perceived. As he notes, it may seem difficult today to understand the pro-acoustic objection to recording through a microphone, when today’s audiophiles seek purity in the reproduction of sound that has as a matter of course been recorded electrically.  Stokowski (the son of “a Polish cabinetmaker father and Irish mother”) was one of the early pioneers of experimentation with volume and recording techniques, but even he objected to the idea that a recording could, or should try to, reproduce the sound of a concert hall in the space of a living room - to which it seems he has a point.

The Stokowski site has a fantastic (digital) discography of his electrical recordings (and acoustic ones). The full, 7-minute 1925 recording of ‘Danse Macabre’ is here; another mentioned by Milner is the 1927 recording of Dvorak’s ‘From The New World’ Symphony, a marked improvement on the quality of the 1925 version. Milner argues that - heard in the flesh - the acoustic recordings of the era feel easier and more comforting to listen to, with the electrical recordings more akin to the sharpness of a CD. Personally I think there’s a certain charm to the extra clarity of the electrical recording, heard from this distance - an incremental progression towards the now.

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Feb 28
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If recordings are considered primarily as products of technology, science, and industry, they can be evaluated only subjectively - that is, as artworks - because what they produce is so abstract and illusory, mere pressure changes in the air.

Greg Milner, Perfecting Sound Forever

I had a discussion recently with a friend - one with a degree in music technology - who described sound as being particularly “abstract”, to which I attempted to offer a philosophical counterargument. I could see - so to speak - where he was coming from, but I wondered if it’s simply a consequence of our biological and psychological make-up to prefer to conceive of the world in primarily visual terms, especially having moved from an oral to a written society and education system. The visual world seems more immediately tangible, because we can continuously observe so many objects that correspond to solid, physical reality, whereas with sound we are limited (save for the use of bat-like sonar) to a moment-by-moment array of audible sources.

The underlying difference lies less in actuality than with our abilities of perception, which I think was understood - and I have to credit him with the observation that, much like passive sonar relies on an active source to ‘see’, the room is illuminated by the ‘vibration’ of a lightbulb filament reflected off of other surfaces, merely with electromagnetic waves rather than pressure ones. It’s really more of an issue as to whether one can radically break down our understanding of the world to its biological and physical assumptions, and take that as a useful critique of language and thought*. To me, although it is difficult, I can conceive of a visual world that is no less complex or differentiated than an aural one: so surely our bewilderment at the latter is at least in part a trained behaviour.

So I noted the use of the word “abstract” above as being contingent on our psychological perception, not the physical reality which follows - although ultimately, from my perspective, it makes no difference. If anything, “pressure changes” are the opposite of abstract, being real physical events which are tangible (if only, in human terms, to the inner ear - which is part of his point.) What are abstract and illusory are the conceptions we use to describe what we hear - like in the Zen saying, sometimes we mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself (although ‘the moon itself’ is equally an abstraction, and thus itself illusory.) Sound is only abstract in the sense that we have to draw it out of an undifferentiated, pre-perception ‘reality’ to make sense of it.

If you think about it, the simultaneous wave-particles of photons that make up what we ‘see’ are equally abstract and illusory. Everything is abstract and illusory, and nothing hurts.

*I strongly disagree with this when it comes to political philosophy - Hobbes especially - but there the point is that social and political conclusions are being drawn from the artificial reductionism, when more properly they should follow from the constructed reality we create as human beings. No doubt there is something in Continental philosophy about the innate political meaning of sound, but I don’t think I’ve made any political claims for it one way or the other, yet. 

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